HIV and COVID-19: Political Comparisons and Similarities

By Lisa Rose-Rodriguez, MPH Epidemiologist

Twenty-five years ago, the HIV/AIDS epidemic pushed scientists into a new realm. Scientists faced challenges to reduce the number of HIV positive cases, preventing the spread, and supporting the scientific community in developing a cure or vaccine.

Fast forward to COVID-19, several vaccines, such as Moderna and Pfizer, were fast tracked.  From last year to now, media outlets have been flooding the airways with discussions that provide listeners and viewers with new COVID-19 concerns. What has happened? The easy answer is a strain. Strain typing for HIV means that there are two KNOWN variants. COVID-19 has 13.

Modern science maintains that HIV has two strains and within that are several subtypes. The distinction between the subtypes varies in description. The general consensus is that there is HIV1 and HIV2. Using HIV/AIDS as an example of how media coverage has explained Public Health issues to the public is apropos to this discussion. The HIV virus has overcome victim blaming and shaming. One person who helped with that is Ryan White.

“Ryan White was diagnosed at age 13 while living in Kokomo, Indiana and was given six months to live. When Ryan White tried to return to school, he fought AIDS-related discrimination in his Indiana community. Along with his mother Jeanne White Ginder, Ryan White rallied for his right to attend school gaining national attention and became the face of public education about his disease.”

So here we are 37 years after he received the blood transfusion that is attributed with infecting him with HIV.  Similar questions have arisen for parents: Who can go to school? Do my children have to wear a mask? And how many weeks does my child have to stay home while being quarantined, even if he or she has tested negative for the virus?

There is a political stigma associated with the coronavirus. The layering of the disgust is centered in republican party politics. This leads to discounting masks as real prevention from infection and translates into vaccine repudiation. There is no room for political party affiliation within the pathogen model of disease. A pathogen is a microscopic organism that infects animal or plant hosts and causes disease. A pathogen does not vote or carry a flag.  Numerous  reports show a direct relationship between the percentage of republican governors and the burden of the disease:

COVID-19 has hit people in Republican-led states hardest, study finds

Associations between governor political affiliation and COVID-19 cases, deaths, and testing in the United States

Furthermore, these new strains can be introduced to a disease naïve population that has not developed immunity to that strain. A viral strain can be defined as a variant. This means that underneath a microscope, the patterns are similar, but with notable differences.

“Coronaviruses (CoVs) are positive-stranded RNA (+ssRNA) viruses with a crown-like appearance under an electron microscope (coronam is the Latin term for crown) due to the presence of spike glycoproteins on the envelope.”

Think of this as an automobile in a grocery store parking lot. You notice some have two doors, while others have four doors or a sunroof. That is one way to understand how strains are related to the original, but have a separate identity. These differences can cause symptoms in one strain that are less or more serious in another strain. Returning to HIV as an example:

“HIV-1 and HIV-2 are two distinct viruses. Although tests which are sensitive to both types of viruses are widely available, only one antibody test currently available can specifically distinguish between antibodies to HIV-1 or HIV-2.

Worldwide, the predominant virus is HIV-1. HIV-1 accounts for around 95% of all infections worldwide. HIV-2 is estimated to be more than 55% genetically distinct from HIV-1.”

Bridging the public’s experience with HIV to the coronavirus means that highlighting the existence of additional strains serves the public health agenda. People who are vested in their health status have the information that there is more than one strain and that booster shots are being offered as of this writing. This is particularly true for the number of Ohio residents who have already been vaccinated using Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson.

“62.15% of Ohio residents over the age of 18 have been vaccinated.  59.87% of residents over 12 have been vaccinated.”

The news media has been an excellent conveyance of information during the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Delta is currently the predominant strain of the virus in the United States.”

The Harvard Medical School article, The Present and Future of COVID Variants, notes that the Delta variant is twice as infectious. Epidemiologist often refer to this as the pathogenicity of the virus, meaning how quickly it infects people and how sick they become. With thirteen known variants, the public health messages will continue to include the simplest preventions: wash your hands, wear a mask, and keep six feet away from others. The global society has undergone this social change based on this Epidemic. These precautions have proven effective against the original and will also be effective against the strains.

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